Science makes the world a better place

Posted on January 31, 2021

Featured scientist: Prof Willem Landman
Professor in Meteorology in the Department of Geography, Geoinformatics and Meteorology 

Q: Why did you choose to study meteorology?
A: I first became interested in science when I was 14 or 15 years old. I was intrigued by the beautiful large glass thermometers in the science laboratory and started reading about thermometers in my brother’s university textbooks. In a Geography textbook, I discovered the Stevenson screen (basically a louvered wooden box, placed about 1 to 2 m above ground level) that houses different meteorological instruments, including thermometers! I was so fascinated by this thermometer shelter that I decided to build one. I asked my school friend Carl to help me with the construction, and from the age of about 16 years, I started daily recording minimum and maximum temperatures, as well as the information provided by the wet- and dry-bulb thermometers that I kept in my Stevenson screen. I still have that data, which included rainfall figures, collected over several years, and I still make daily weather observations at home! Clearly, already as a teenager, I knew that I would one day become a professional meteorologist

Q: Why is science (including meteorology) important?
A: The eradication and control of diseases is one example of the importance of science and its ability to make the world a better place. Further advances in science will lead to further improvements, for example in respect of our safety. The same applies to meteorology, a field that is primarily concerned with making science-based predictions of future weather conditions that may affect our daily lives. In order to accurately predict atmospheric phenomena such as tropical storms, in particular their impact on society, meteorologists have developed a sound understanding of the atmosphere and have therefore developed excellent weather forecast models. Similar models are used to produce estimates about the likelihood of future droughts, and what the climate (the average weather over long periods) will be like decades from today. Forewarned is forearmed, and these weather models certainly enable us to prepare for different eventualities. 

Q: What were the highlights of your career so far, including your time at UP?
A:  About 20 years ago I spent two of the most productive and enjoyable years of my career as a postdoctoral fellow at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society, which is part of the Earth Institute of Columbia University in New York. I still visit that institution every year and have an adjunct research scientist appointment there, of which I am very proud. More recently I had the honour of being awarded UP’s Academic Achievers Award. 

Q: Please elaborate on Seasonal Forecast Worx
A: This endeavour was established in the Department in 2017 with the main objective to provide seasonal climate forecasts for the region. Forecasts are based on the model output of the North-American Multi-Model Ensemble. These model forecasts are produced monthly and are statistically improved and tailored for southern Africa and for global sea-surface temperatures by me, with assistance from post-graduate students in the Department. Tailored forecasts that are currently produced are for the occurrence of malaria in the Limpopo Province, dry-land crop-yield and rainfall forecasts for a number of farms in South Africa and Namibia, inflow forecasts for Lake Kariba, and downstream forecasts for the Vaal Dam.

Q: Describe a day in the life of Prof Landman. What does the work of a meteorologist entail?
A: Attending to too many emails! Apart from the usual administrative duties, my time is primarily divided between presenting lectures, postgraduate supervision and my own research, which is associated mainly with funded research projects that also involve a number of local and international institutions. Of course, all the research, my own and that of my students, needs to be published in peer-reviewed research journals. I am also required to make time to review other people’s research papers and research proposals, and act as an examiner for postgraduate dissertations and theses. 

Q: What qualities does a good scientist need?
A: An inquisitive mind and a desire to discover things!

Q: What advice would you give to young scientists?
A: Focus on your science interests, regularly communicate with your mentors and build networks with both young and established scientists. Learn how to write research papers and develop a passion for it!

Q: What motto do you live by?
A: I believe in total honesty and integrity when reporting on my research. Also, when a student comes to see me in my office, I consider it my duty to make sure that he or she is happier after our encounter. 

- Author Martie Meyer
Published by Martie Meyer

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